The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Setting & Themes

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  • 1:39 Themes of the Novel
  • 2:06 Theme: Sex and Sexuality
  • 3:09 Theme: Love and Family
  • 4:10 Theme: Friendship
  • 5:02 Theme: Coming-of-Age
  • 5:28 Theme: Being a Wallflower
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we see Charlie change from scared child to (somewhat) adjusted teenager. This lesson will focus on the setting and themes of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Overview of the Novel

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a 1999 young adult novel by Stephen Chbosky. It's the story of Charlie, told through letters from Charlie to an unnamed friend. Charlie is not the typical high school freshman. He is very smart but shy and awkward around others. In this novel, readers follow Charlie through the loss of a good friend, the making of new friends, his experiences with drugs and sex, and the revelation of a traumatic childhood event that has repercussions in Charlie's current world.

Setting of the Novel

Though we never learn through Charlie letters exactly where he lives, most analysts agree that he is near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A few clues to this are that Charlie's brother and one of his friends attend Penn State, which is nearby. Also, we know that Ohio is a two hour drive when Charlie has to drive the family there for Christmas. Also, Charlie twice mentions a tunnel called the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which is in Pittsburgh. So, that takes care of the where.

He does, fortunately, give us the dates that the action takes place, which is in the fall and winter of 1991 and the spring and summer of 1992. There are mentions of things like cassettes and mix tapes, which show the story takes place in the early 1990s. By the time of the novel's publication, in 1999, cassette tapes had mostly gone the way of the dinosaurs and had largely been replaced by CDs, which are pretty much on their way out too.

Themes of the Novel

There are many themes running rampant through The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and most revolve around Charlie's journey from childhood into adolescence. The themes we'll be discussing here: sex, sexuality, love and family, friendship, coming of age, and being a wallflower are themes that any teenager can certainly relate to, and must have been the reasons why the book enjoyed such popularity.

Theme: Sex and Sexuality

In the novel, Charlie's sexual experiences are all very negative. The novel deals with Charlie's molestation as a child by a family member, date rape, unintentional pregnancy ending in abortion, and the darker side of homosexuality. Charlie's friend Patrick gets caught with his boyfriend, who then rejects him. Then Patrick goes out and has a number of meaningless affairs while Charlie is present, and even kisses Charlie, who is just not into guys.

All of these things add up to make poor Charlie a mess when it comes to sex, which is obvious in the way he reacts to Sam's reaching into his pants, which, Charlie actually wanted to happen. Sam is the girl Charlie has been crushing on all year. This book shows Charlie more of the negative repercussions of sex than the joy and beauty, and this leads to Charlie having a very unhealthy view of sex that we hope he is working on while in the therapy that he begins by the end of the novel.

Theme: Love and Family

Charlie thinks he loves Sam, but in reality it's a huge crush that threatens everything Charlie has worked for, including his relationship with Mary Elizabeth. When asked to kiss the prettiest girl in the room at a party, Charlie heads right for Sam, bypassing his girlfriend and ending that relationship almost before it got started. But there is love in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it's the love that Charlie has for his family. In the end, that is more important than anything else.

But even Charlie's family is not without issues. His sister accepts an abusive relationship and then is upset at Charlie when it splinters. Charlie also has an extremely complicated relationship with his Aunt Helen as well. Though Charlie tells us early on that she died while out getting his birthday gift, she also molested him as a child and the repressed memory surfaces and lands Charlie in a mental hospital.

Theme: Friendship

Charlie wants friends more than anything. He's experienced being alone at the beginning of his freshman year and it sucked. So when he ends up hanging out with Patrick and Sam, he's thrilled. Friends!

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